Study concludes conservation NGOs might be better off working outside the RSPO

Conservation NGOs, palm oil producers, and other industry players have all promoted the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s efforts, but is their participation truly effective in the RSPO scheme?

Agricultural expansion into tropical forests is an important driver of biodiversity loss — which scientists say has already become so severe across 60 per cent of the Earth’s land surface that it may already threaten ecosystems’ ability to sustain human life.

Voluntary global standards like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), established in 2004 as an association of private stakeholders within the palm oil supply chain, are one of the chief tools being employed to reduce deforestation associated with the production of agricultural commodities. Conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), palm oil producers, and other players in the industry have all promoted the RSPO’s efforts, but a new study published in the journal Conservation and Society looks at how effective NGOs’ participation in the RSPO scheme truly is.

“So far researchers have demonstrated that the emergence of certifications for global commodities, such as RSPO, can be qualified as a new capitalist instrument, promoted by dominant economic players and major NGOs, and operating at the expense of local people,” the study notes.

But NGOs adopt a number of different roles based on their conservation goals and the resources at their disposal for achieving those goals. The study found that there are four general types of resources NGOs use to influence their relationship with the RSPO and its member companies to try and prioritise their goals: expertise; relationships outside the system, such as with media and government; communication and information; and institutional rules within the system.

The authors of the study say they’ve documented four different categories of engagement with the RSPO employed by NGOs, based largely on the types of resources they are capable of mobilising and their individual conservation goals: “1) ‘Collaborative NGOs’ seek to change the system from within by providing scientific research-based information, by holding strategic positions and by creating rules; 2) ‘Opponent’ remains outside the RSPO while using it as a platform for public campaigns; 3) ‘Opportunistic’ focuses on conserving geographical areas by adopting either collaborative or opponent strategies to reach their goals; and 4) ‘Sceptic’ supports communities to secure local land rights.”

The emergence of certifications for global commodities, such as RSPO, can be qualified as a new capitalist instrument, promoted by dominant economic players and major NGOs, and operating at the expense of local people.

However, the RSPO’s institutional structure could limit NGOs’ ability to have an impact, the authors found. Individual NGOs cannot change the RSPO’s strategy, and they often use different engagement strategies themselves in pursuit of their own conservation goals, making it difficult for NGOs to collaborate and therefore gain leverage over the institution. Meanwhile, the “Sceptic” NGOs are structurally excluded from the RSPO altogether, even though local land rights are a fundamental issue in regards to biodiversity conservation.

Conservation NGOs have played a vital role in strengthening biodiversity conservation within the RSPO, the authors write, including the creation of a comprehensive complaints system, a Compensation Task Force, and a Working Group on Greenhouse Gases. “All of these rules and institutions help to strengthen the RSPO standard and the provisions for its implementation,” the authors add.

But the RSPO system has largely failed to support NGOs in reaching their initial conservation goals. The response to NGO-led initiatives from other players, especially growers and downstream actors such as processors, manufacturers, and retailers, has “co-constructed and institutionalised the RSPO in such a way that it constrains the NGOs,” according to the study. This is what limits NGOs’ options and prevents them from achieving their own conservation goals.

In some ways, the NGOs themselves are responsible for the limits placed on their participation in the RSPO, however. What the authors call “Collaborative NGOs” have succeeded in creating several working groups within the RSPO, to which they provide scientific information on biodiversity loss, deforestation, and climate change. But the NGOs are never able to provide all of the needed information, and there are always some uncertainties at the local level, meaning that working groups must continually adjust their goals based on ongoing evaluation of available data. That ends up reinforcing the market logic of the RSPO, the authors contend.

“[The working groups] digest NGO criticism through a science-based management process. As a result, the RSPO still allows biodiversity loss, deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions. Having contributed to reinforcing the RSPO system for more than 10 years, collaborative NGOs seem to have no other option but to unconditionally promote the RSPO,” the authors write.

All of which leads the authors to conclude that “NGOs would be more effective in reaching their goals either by focusing on their initial conservation objectives or by strategically collaborating with each other outside the structures of the RSPO.”

This story was published with permission from

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